The COVID-19 pandemic-induced 2020 lockdown in the US led to the explicit and public recognition of some workers as essential and others not. Among those deemed not essential were workers in tourism and travel-related industries. Like other non-essential workers, they were laid off or furloughed as the destinations emptied, and air travel became restricted to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

In Hawaiʻi, a prime tourist destination, state policies restricting travel in the first phase of the pandemic led to a precipitous dip in visitors. In April 2020, the state hosted 4,564 visitors – essential workers rather than tourists – to all the islands compared to 831,445 visitors in the same month in 2019. Hotels and restaurants shut down. With the onset of the pandemic, 8,000 of 8,500 hotel worker members of the largest union in the industry, UNITE HERE! Local 5, were furloughed. They are majority immigrants of color and Pacific Islanders.

The furloughs, interestingly, did not halt the organizing work of Local 5 members. In fact, with the state, corporations, and corporate lobbyists rushing to reopen tourism as the only answer to economic distress, the Local 5 members exerted their collective power to demand a safe reopening and pandemic-specific protections of worker rights. They immediately stepped forward. They contributed their expertise to develop pandemic-appropriate best practices as a workforce that performs commodified care work in the service economy, undaunted by the state government’s efforts to shut them out of reopening plans. 

Our research, done in consultation with the hotel workers’ union, reveals on the one hand, a morbid correlation between the reopening of tourism and deaths across the state, and on the other, the life-affirming ethic of collective care, with unionized workers persistently pushing for safe hotels, recall rights, better pay, and the well-being of all hospitality workers, their communities, as well as tourists. 

The Local 5 safety committees, modeled after efforts led by essential workers on the US continent, practiced mutual public health education, and held hotels accountable property by property. When the state and county refused to pass industry-wide measures and ignored worker input into the plans to reopen tourism by October 2021, the committees negotiated for pandemic conscious health protocols, daily cleaning, and the recall of workers to the jobs they held before the lockdown. They leveraged the union contract to inspect properties and file grievances for violations. 

Our title, “Dying to Work,” operates on two registers. It indicates the workers’ rejection of the opposition between their economic survival and their health. It also captures (as the graph below reveals) the morbid correlation between tourism revenue and Covid deaths, a consequence of bringing business back to ostensibly reduce economic pain.

The dying for dollars correlation is a product of  what we call “autoimmune capitalism.” An  evolving dimension of late capitalism, it is autophagic rather than cannibalistic. In this case, financialization drives the intertwined processes of abstraction and extraction such that capitalism misrecognizes parts of itself, and turns on them even as it lives off them. In using this biological metaphor, we recognize that an autoimmune response is chronic. To encounter the response, workers as part of the same ‘body’ extend collective care by turning to life rather than death and destruction.

Instead of conceptualizing an antagonistic relationship between the industry (the attacker) and its workers (the attacked), we imagine tourism in pandemic times as an assemblage. Workers, unions, state actors, lobbyists, corporations, the virus, and the offshore ultrarich are all organic parts in dynamic relation to each other. During the pandemic, this assemblage tilted heavily in favor of financiers and their clients.

Arguably, externalization, extraction, and abstraction are central to Marx’s theorization of capitalism, beginning with primitive accumulation, and taking the form of the alienation of labor through the extraction of surplus value under conditions of mass production. In late capitalist “autoimmune” arrangements, financiers and their ultrarich clients also abstract land, life, and care into “inputs.”

While autoimmune capitalism may seem all too familiar in its parts, we see something new in the tools and acceleration of the abstraction process. The process turns land and labor into financial instruments to generate low-risk steady streams of “return on investment” or ROI in that it relegates profit generation to the margins. The ROI  derives from corporate over-extension from the maintenance of hyper-leveraged expansion loans attended by constant cost-cutting. It is then protected in a literal shell game of offshore tax havens for the ultrarich. It seems to benefit the investors, both the active capitalists and the more conservative inheritors of wealth. The term ROI obfuscates the economic precarity it produces for everyone else.

In the tourist industry, hotels have been converted into financial instruments that are tapped to produce a steady ROI. Their profitability is no longer the end game. What matters to the ultrarich is the steady return on investments. Neither the brick and mortar hotels, nor the workers who create the experience of leisure for the tourists, nor the tourists who pay for the services and experience matter. 

Take the Hilton Hotels for example. Rather than being a single company, they have been split into three. One is tasked with the management of the hotels, the second with extracting value from the land the hotels operate on through a lobbyist-engineered overhaul of what are called real estate investment trusts (REITs). The third wing is concerned with exploring the next market, fully expecting to tap out the land, human, and even corporate resources of present ones. 

The investors are not concerned with the profits of the first, the property of the second, or the results of the third. Besides the over-leveraged loans, REITs have turned from a democratizing means for small investors to take part in large commercial investments into a vehicle for collecting fast management fees and long-term income streams for the first investors, whose ROI happens before the percentage going to small investors is even calculated.  

This dynamic plays out in crude but telling ways. At a presentation to cheer on investors in November 2021, as the Omicron variant was spreading, a Park Hotels and Resorts (Hilton’s spin-off REIT) representative enthusiastically shared that Hilton had capitalized on the pandemic by making cuts and rendering them permanent, resulting in millions in savings and a three percent increase in the REIT’s ROI. Using the pandemic as a cover to cut costs and accelerate ROI played out in Hawaiʻi as well with Local 5 workers exposing these measures.

At the state and local level, corporate lobbyists successfully shut Hawaiʻi workers out of any discussion of reopening and any alternatives to tourism. This conscious strategy led to a racist campaign of blaming poor and working people, mostly immigrants of color and Indigenous people, for a lack of personal responsibility while trying to hide the glaringly obvious fact that every time tourism surged after the premature reopening of the state during the pandemic, new infections followed and deaths surged about six weeks later. Tourists, not lack of personal responsibility, cause the continual reinfection of our island communities. 

Amid the death-dealing environment brought into sharp relief by the pandemic, hotel workers have created webs of collective care for each other, their families, and the larger community. This care is radical; it refuses the logics of capitalism that tethers life to its survival, especially when in crisis. The Local 5 members folded the ethic and practice of radical care into union organizing. They used conventional union strategies as well as inventive ones in solidarity with imperiled workers across the globe. Their organizing generated creativity and improvisation to make a life where none is given.

Richard Cullen Rath is Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Monisha Das Gupta is Professor in the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

To read more, see Richard Cullen Rath and Monisha Das Gupta. “Dying to Work: O’ahu Hotel Workers’ Efforts at Well-Being in the Face of Autoimmune Capitlaism” in Anthropology of Work Review 2022. 

Image provided by UNITE HERE! Local 5.